SPOILERS, WARNING, SPOILERS
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS FOR SNOWPIERCER.
Oh hell, who am I kidding? Everyone has already seen this movie. As usual, I'm the last one to the party, because NO CAPTIONS AVAILABLE at the theater, and haven't we all heard THAT song enough times, so I won't sing it again here.
If you haven't seen Snowpiercer, turn back now. Go watch the movie, then return to discuss it, or not, whatever pleases you. This is your last chance ... okay, you were warned.
For those of you who live under rocks: Snowpiercer is a movie about a giant train that circles the earth. On this train are the last survivors of an extreme climate change, which has left the earth as an uninhabitable, frozen wasteland. If you enjoy explody scenes and lots of fighting (slow-motion and otherwise) and big crashes full of CGI effects, you will definitely enjoy the hell out of Snowpiercer. It is comic-bookish in the delivery of physical pain (in the backstory, told through Curtis' point of view towards the end, limbs are severed and people make pompous speeches while bleeding copiously and heroically saving little babies, etc.). The film suffers from a few logistical plot holes; however, if you're able to suspend belief for a bit, it's a worthwhile movie to watch.
Director Bong Joon-ho brought a level of depth to the characters that I felt was lacking in the American translation of the original graphic novel. I'm not sure if the American version lost something in the translation; however, in case you don't know, Snowpiercer is a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige, which is written and illustrated by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette.
The movie is a project by Bong Joon-ho, who is a South Korean film director and screenwriter, and his love of the graphic novel is evident in every detail. Bong is no newbie, he is a conscientious director, whose works are considered some of the best. The script for Snowpiercer was written by Bong Joon-ho and an American, Kelly Masterson (best known for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead).
Bong takes his time to lay out the story in Snowpiercer. Unfortunately, some revelations come very late within the film, almost toward the end. While the backstory reveals a lot about character motivations, I found myself thinking that I might have cared more about the characters if I'd known some of the backstory closer to the beginning. For example, Edgar's death would have been more meaningful to me had his story been worked into the film earlier. As it was, I found the character to be annoying and was kind of glad when he was gone.
Chris Evans play Curtis Everett, the movie's "reluctant hero." Evans plays Curtis as the perennial stoic white guy, thrust into the role of hero. Perhaps, because I have seen so many movies filled with stoic white guys being stoic, I tend to tune those characters out. They become background noise to me, and Evans is no exception. He is so stoic as Curtis, that he feels wooden and emotionless throughout most of the movie.
However, Bong has a wonderful cast at his disposal and they more than make the film worth watching. Octavia Spencer is positively fierce as Tanya. She goes through that train clubbing the enemy like each one is personally responsible for taking her son. Yet she lends maturity and gravitas to the small group that moves forward. Tanya is not a psycho-bitch, nor is she a fighter in the beginning of the movie. She joins the revolution to get her son, and she adapts herself to every situation with grace.
Luke Pasqualino is beautifully eloquent as the mute Grey. Pasqualino also has the second most heartrending death scene that I've ever seen, which isn't a bad rating considering that Willem DaFoe holds my number one spot with Sergeant Elias' death scene in Platoon. Pasqualino is definitely an actor whose career is well worth watching.
Tilda Swinton. Hell. I shouldn't have to say anything else. TILDA SWINTON, PEOPLE. She is, as ever, awesome.
Bong rewrote the character of Mason (a man in the graphic novel) to be a woman in the movie specifically for Swinton. She is amazing as Mason, probably one of the best female antagonists that I've seen in a long time. Mason is a manipulator, the second in command on the train, and she believes the mantra of being in one's place.
My favorite scene with Mason is when she is pleading for her life. In an effort to bond with the people from the tail, she takes out her false teeth. It is an overt ploy for sympathy that simply revolts the people around her. Although she makes no bones about her desire to live, Mason is thinking five steps ahead of Curtis. She is playing a part, one that goes horribly wrong for her in the end, but at no point does she become repentant for either her actions or her philosophies.
Ko Ah-sung plays Yona, who is the daughter of Namgoong Minsu (played by Song Kang-ho). Yona's mother, who was an Inuit, was the leader of the an earlier train revolt. Yona's mother believed the people could survive in the frozen world. Unfortunately, Yona's mother left the train with her six followers too soon and froze to death before they could get far from the tracks. Yona's father, Namgoong (shortened to Nam by the other characters), also believes that humans can survive outside.
And now I have reached the heart of it. Nam is really the hero of this story, not Curtis. Curtis, in many ways, is a reflection of the oppressive powers of Wilford and Gilliam. He is merely the system before it becomes honed into an oppressor. Nam, on the other hand, is thinking outside the box, or the train, if you will.
The Snowpiercer, of course, is the symbol of a society that is as constricting as a boa constrictor. It's almost no surprise that in long shots, the train looks like a snake. The societal norms within Snowpiercer are an echo of real life: the people in the tail car represent poor people, who are "shit" (as one enlightened youngster elucidates midway through the movie) and the rich are ensconced in their privilege, totally oblivious to the plight of the people in the snake's tail. The viewer is left with the feeling that even if they knew, the privileged wouldn't care. Snowpiercer has no middle class. There are the people in the tail, the workers, and the rich.
Nam wants to break free of the train and live outside, because it is only by living outside of the train that one can expect true freedom. He passes himself off as a Kronole addict. Kronole is supposed to be industrial waste which makes the users high when they sniff it. It is also highly flammable. Here lies the cunning of Nam. His goal is to procure Kronole, not because he intends to get high, but because he wants to blow the Snowpiercer open. The way toward change isn't by reaching the engine and becoming a part of the system, but by rupturing the side of the beast and crawling out into the day.
Change is frightening, and this fear of change is embodied in Curtis, who believes the way out is by remaining close to convention: a revolution which installs a new leader who is sympathetic to the needs of the people. Wilford knows that once Curtis becomes his (and Gilliam's) successor, then the status quo will remain the same. Curtis will be forced to carry on the corruption that he hates, because he is not intelligent enough to work outside the societal structures that Wilford and Gilliam have established.
Nam believes in taking a chance on the unknown. He has evidence to back his theory (although it is never explained how Nam manages to escape the prison car to see an ever more visible crashed airplane on an annual basis--fair warning: the movie is peppered with little plot holes like this). Nam knows that Snowpiercer is like an abusive relationship, one that is tolerated because it comfortable in the sense that the people are warm, food is provided, and while not perfect, the people feel the constraints of their society are preferable to the alternative of freezing to death.
The Snowpiercer has become a coffin. In order to survive, Nam understands that they must smash the train and step outside of their comfort zone. Jung referenced such an act as a psychic change. The way toward growth and freedom is not by rehabilitating the known, but by changing direction one hundred and eighty degrees and stepping into the unknown. So Nam tries to convince Curtis that outside is safer than Wilford and Gilliam have portrayed the environment to be. Curtis refuses to leave the crutch of the perceived safety within the Snowpiercer. Curtis believes in his ability to change the Snowpiercer from the top down.
Of course, Wilford and Gilliam have no desire to change their environment. They represent not only the status quo, but also the benevolent gods who decide who lives and who dies in order to maintain the proper population count necessary for everyone's survival on the train. This is where the mantra of knowing one's place is repeated.
Mason says it several times: survival of the species is dependant on knowing one's place. This has religious undertones, which I'm not going to go into here, but also societal and class distinctions. Never once does Curtis decry this philosophy. He merely wants to see a more even distribution of class. Nam wants to blow it all apart and move back into the world, regardless as to how dangerous that path may seem.
In the end, it is Nam who is right. Curtis gives lip service toward fighting the elite, but in the final scenes, Curtis is lulled by Wilford's speech. It is Nam who is holding back the upper classes while his daughter acquires the light that will free them all.
Nam destroys the train and the corrupt society that it has bred. His is an act of martyrdom while Curtis' role as the protagonist is merely sleight of hand. Curtis is destroyed with the train and with him, the end of Wilford and Gilliam's ability to continue their empire through Curtis.
Plot holes? Yeah. Standard white male lead? Yeah. But those are surface issues to me. I think Bong layered the story beautifully and gave us a movie that will be appreciated more in later years. Maybe after we decide to step outside the train that cripples us with complacency and move into the light.